Encouraging Social Skills in Young Children:
Tips Teachers Can Share with Parents
by Jacquelyn Mize and Ellen Abell
"I feel so sorry for her She'll ask other kids if she can play, and usually they just say, 'No, you're not our friend.' She's trying to be nice. What more can she do?"
"My son seems to have gotten the idea that it's O.K. to terrorize younger children. Yesterday I saw him shove this other little boy, take a shovel he had, and then just ride off on his trike, leaving the other kid almost in tears."
"Erika never joins in when other children are playing. She just watches, looking miserable and lonely, and I don't know what to say to help her"
It is not unusual for parents who are concerned about their children's social skills to turn to preschool teachers for advice about what to do. Many a teacher has been approached by a parent looking for help to deal with a shy or aggressive or friendless child. Can teachers feel comfortable addressing parents' concerns? What kind of guidance can teachers give to these parents? The purpose of this article is to review current thinking about young children's peer relationships and offer ideas and practices that teachers can suggest to parents concerned about their children's social development. Parents have good reason to be uneasy when their children have trouble getting along with agemates. Peers afford preschoolers some of their most exciting, fun experiences. Not having friends or playmates can be frustrating, even painful, for young children. In addition, a growing body of research supports the belief, held by many early childhood professionals, that young children's peer relationships are important for their development and adjustment to school. Preschool-aged children who have positive peer relationships are likely to maintain positive peer interactions in grade school, while children who have a hard time getting along with agemates in the preschool years are more likely to experience later academic difficulties and rejection or neglect by their elementary-school peers (Ladd, 1990; Ladd & Price, 1987; Ladd, Price, & Hart, 1988). Without the skills to play constructively and develop friendships with agemates, children become excluded from opportunities to develop additional and more complex skills important for future peer interaction (Eisenberg, Cameron, Tryon, & Dodez, 1981; Howes, 1988).
Socially Competent Preschoolers
Picture the well-liked, friendly children in the preschool classrooms of your experience. What do you notice about their behavior that makes them different from less well-liked children? Most observers note the generally positive character of their interactions with other children Mize, 1995). Consider the following interaction between two four-year-old's:
Ben is sitting inside a large innertube, wearing a firefighter helmet, when Jiin walks up and gives the innertube a nudge with his foot. "Hurry and get in the truck," Ben shouts excitedly. There's a fire and we gotta go put it out!" Jim gives the innertube another listless nudge with his foot and com- plains, "I don't wanna be a fireman, I wanna be a policeman." "I know,' offers Ben, "let's both be policemen and get the bad guys who started the fire." Ben removes his firefighter helmet and tosses it aside. Suddenly animated, Jim scrambles into the innertube with him. "I'll drive," he states. "Rrrrrrrrrrr," Ben replies, imitating the sound of a police siren.
Ben ignored Jim's somewhat unpleasant manner and responded instead with enthusiastic and friendly suggestions. He did not react to Jim's negativity, but was instead agreeable and willing to be flexible. Children, like Ben, who have many such harmonious interactions with a variety of their preschool-aged peers are likely to be well-liked and accepted by them (Black & Logan, 1995; Hazen & Black, 1989). Agreeable children also are likely to find acceptance in subsequent peer settings, such as in kindergarten (Ladd & Price, 1987).
While being agreeable certainly is a prerequisite to good peer relations, it alone is not sufficient. Socially competent preschoolers have started to develop additional, more sophisticated skills that they use to make play exciting and fun. These are skills that serve children well as they attempt to negotiate the increasingly complex world of peers. The first of these skills is the ability to tune-in to important features of the social context (Black & Hazen, 1990; Putallaz, 1987). Children are able to recognize other children's preferences, frame of reference, behavior, and interests and can adapt accordingly. Consider the following interaction among four- and five-year-olds:
Elizabeth and Rachel are playing inside a cardboard playhouse. They have dolls which they periodically hold up to the cut-out windows and then, squealing, quickly pull down. Sarah walks over hoping to join in. "Can I play house?' she asks, "cause I have a doll, too." "We're not playing house!" Rachel in- forms her. "We're playing ghosts!" 'Yeah," Elizabeth chimes in. "It's Halloween and there's ghosts outside scaring us.""Anyway it's too crowded in here" adds Rachel. "Oh. Well, I could be a ghost," Sarah offers. 'No you can't," objects Rachel. "Ghosts are invisible." 'I know what," Sarah says, retrieving a nearby broom. "I'm the wicked witch." Sarah straddles the broom and circles the playhouse, cackling. "Eeeeeiaaiiil" Rachel and Elizabeth squeal excitedly. "There's a witch flying around our house!"
Sarah gains eventual entree into Elizabeth's and Rachel's play because she was able to devise a strategy that was relevant to their interests - she didn't disrupt or change the play, she made it more fun. Even when they are trying to be positive, children who are less tuned in may suggest activities that are irrelevant to other children's interests, they may call attention to themselves, or they may do things that are disruptive to the play. No matter how nicely she had asked, had Sarah tried suggest that the girls play house instead of ghosts, she probably would have been met with rejection. But with a little bit of persistence and creativity on Sarah's part, the others were convinced that having her join the play would make it more fun. Although with too much persistence a child will be perceived as a nuisance, a little flexible persistence, like Sarah's, is useful. One of the realities of social life in preschool classrooms is that about half of children's requests to play are greeted with rejection by peers (Corsaro, 1981). As Sarah demonstrated, willingness to maintain social interactions by initiating an alternative in response to peers' rejections sometimes brings success (Hazen & Black, 1989). In contrast, a less competent child might have given up dejectedly, argued with her peers, or demanded that her peers play a different game. Not surprisingly, children who resort to antagonistic behaviors that disrupt the play of their peers often are rebuffed or ignored and generally are disliked (Pettit & Harrist, 1993). If one or two relevant, enthusiastic alternatives don't bring success, however, the competent child will wisely conclude that it might be best to try another day.
In addition to being generally agreeable and well attuned to the social context, socially competent children are responsive and able to mesh their behavior with the behavior of their play partners (Mize, 1995).
Emma and Nadia, dressed in hats, jewelry and high heels, and sitting on two chairs behind an old steering wheel are "driving" to McDonalds. Robert approaches and says, "Hey, I wanna drive!" "No, we're driving!" shouts Nadia. "Yea, the moms are driving," Emma answers, "you can ride in the back.' Like many competent preschoolers, Emma responded contingently to Robert's initiation, and even though she rejected his request to drive, she offered an alternative and an explanation. Observations of competent preschoolers indicate that they are more likely than their less competent peers to acknowledge and respond to others, and to offer an alternative or reinitiate even if they must reject a peer's play suggestion (Hazen & Black, 1989). Less competent children more often ignore others and have difficulty maintaining long, positive interactions. This sensitive responsivity helps competent children maintain longer play bouts without getting into disruptive disagreements.
Thus, children who are socially competent are able to do more than merely behave in positive ways. They show a responsiveness and a sensitivity to the social context and to others. They are able to maintain positive contact and counter play rejections with alternative options. Knowledge of the characteristics of competent preschoolers can provide a solid grounding from which teachers can offer guidance to parents about children's peer relationships.
Parental influence on children's social development
It is widely believed that the everyday experiences in relationships with their parents are fundamental to children's developing social skills (Cohn, Patterson, & Christopoulous, 1991; Parke & Ladd, 1992). In particular, parental responsiveness and nurturance are considered to be key factors in the development of children's social competence (Maccoby & Martin, 1983). Loving and responsive parenting helps children to see the world in a positive way and to expect that relationships with others will be rewarding. Children who display high levels of social competence typically enjoy parent-child relationships characterized by positive and agreeable interactions, acceptance (Cohn, Patterson, & Christopoulous, 1991; Pettit & Mize, 1993; Putallaz, 1987), and sensitive behavioral exchanges in which parent and child respond to one another's cues (Harrist, Pettit, Dodge, & Bates, 1994; Pettit, Harrist, Bates & Dodge, 1991; Pettit & Harrist, 1993). Parents of competent children also minimize the use of physical punishment and coercive discipline (Dodge, Bates, & Pettit, 1990; Strassberg, Dodge, Pettit, & Bates, 1994).
These styles of parent-child behavior are the foundation for children's social development. Often they reflect unexamined assumptions, values, and attitudes that a parent brings to childrearing. As such, suggesting a change in these fundamental patterns of interaction might be interpreted by parents as an attack on their values and competence. In addition, because they are so ingrained, basic qualities of the parent-child relationship are not likely to change based on an exchange with preschool staff.
Specific steps parents can take to enhance children's social skills
Provide children with opportunities to play with peers. There is no substitute for the experience children gain from interacting with peers. Children who have had many opportunities to play with peers from an early age are clearly at an advantage when they enter formal group settings such as daycare or public school (Ladd & Price, 1987; Lieberman, 1977). Children especially benefit when they can develop long- lasting relationships. Young children - even toddlers - who are able to participate in stable peer groups become more competent over time and have fewer difficulties than children whose peer group membership shifts (Howes,1988). In short, children develop better, more sophisticated social strategies when they are able to maintain stable relationships with other children they like over long periods.
Play with children in a "peer- like' way, just for the sake of having fun. Children learn crucial skills through play with other children, but children also learn a great deal through play with their parents. Children whose parents frequently play with them have more advanced social skills and get along better with peers. This is especially true, however, when parents play with their children in an effectively positive and peer-like way (Lindsey, Mize, & Pettit, in press). Observational studies indicate that the parents of the most socially competent children laugh and smile often, avoid criticizing their child during play, are responsive to the child's ideas, and aren't too directive (MacDonald, 1987; MacDonald & Parke, 1984).
Children gain important social skills from parents who play with them in ways that reflect equality in the play interaction. Consider the following parent-child play scene:
Parent: Did you see these blocks?
Child: Oh, blocks!
Parent: What could we do?
Child: I know! We could make like, a, uh, a big pen.
Parent: A pen! O.K. Here, I'll start here, O.K.?
Child: No, no. We gotta start way over here. Move it over here.
Parent: Alright, I see, so it won't run into the sofa. Oh, but if I turn the block like this, the pen will be longer. Or should we have it taller?
Child: Well, it's gotta be tall, so T-Rex can't jump it.
Parent: (Picks up dinosaur: 'lopes' it along floor toward fence.) (In gruff voice) RRRRR.... I'm gonna jump the fence.
Child: (Picks up another dinosaur figure, pushes it toward parents dinosaur.) But I'm T-Rex and I've got sharp teeth, so you better not stomp the fence. Here, here's a cow you can eat! (Throws small farm animal toward other dinosaur.)
Parent: Chomp, chomp, chomp. Thank you Mr. T-REX.
This parent didn’t correct the child or try to dominate the play. Instead, the parent followed the child's ideas in an actively involved way and also contributed to advancing the 'story" of the play. The child, in turn, picked up on the parent's ideas, and thus the play escalated so that parent and child were just having fun playing as equals.
Children benefit from this type of play for several reasons. From balanced, responsive play with a parent, children may learn many of the skills commonly displayed by the socially competent preschoolers described earlier. In addition, when parents are responsive to children's play ideas, children may come to feel that they are good, effective play partners and thus are eager to play with peers. Finally, fun, balanced parent-child play may instill that positive outlook toward others that makes children look forward to play opportunities with people outside the family.
Talk with children about social relationships and values. Children who have more frequent conversations with a parent about peer relationships are better liked by other children in their classrooms and are rated by teachers as more socially competent (Laird, Pettit, Mize, & Lindsey, 1994). As a part of normal, daily conversation, these parents and children talk about the everyday events that happen in preschool, including things that happen with peers. Often these interactions take place on the way home from school or at dinner (Bradbard, Endsley, & Mize, 1992; Laird et al., 1994). Just how should parents handle these conversations, and what can they say that will make a difference? One of the most important points to make in this regard is that these talks are not lectures, but rather conversations enjoyed by both parent and child. As such, these conversations probably serve two purposes: They communicate to the child an interest in his or her well-being, and they also serve as a basis for information exchange and genuine problem solving.
Take a problem-solving approach. Parents don't have to know the answers to all children's problems to talk to them in helpful ways. For example, a kindergarten child told her father of a girl in her class who she described as being "mean to everybody," and to whom everyone else was, in turn, "mean." In a conversational way, the father asked his daughter questions about what she thought night be happening between the other child and her classmates. Through the discussion, the daughter concluded that the child might be acting "mean" because she thought no one -in the class liked her and decided, as a gesture of goodwill, to draw a picture and give it to the unpopular child. This father didn't dismiss his daughter's concerns, or trivialize their complexity by offering an easy answer, and he didn't lecture her or quiz her. Instead, he engaged her in a conversation that offered her support to consider the problem for herself.
When problem-solving, parents can help children consider various solutions and perspectives. In observations of mothers and fathers talking to their preschool children, we find that parents of the most competent children often consider with the child multiple approaches to situations and reflect on potential consequences of each course of action (Mize & Pettit, 1994):
Mom: Hmmm, gosh, what if he grabs your truck again, what do you think you'll do?
Child: I'd probably just whap him upside his head!
Mom: You would? What'd he do, do you think, if you whapped him?
Child: He'd give it back and never take it again!
Mom: You think so? You don't think he'd just whap you back, and ya'll 'd get in a big ol' fight and then he wouldn't want to play with you again?
Child: Oh, yea.
Mom: What else could you try?
Child: Say, "please?"
Mom: That'd be a nice thing to try. Do you think it’d work?
Mom: Well, maybe not. It might, but it might not, huh?
Child: I could say, "I'll come get you when I'm done."
Mom: Hey, that's an idea. That works sometimes with your sister, doesn't it?
As teachers know, there are often no easy answers to most of children’s problems with peers. Therefore, it is helpful for children to learn how to think about relationships and weigh the consequences of their actions for themselves and others (Slaby, RoedeR, Arezo, & Hendrix, 1995). Of course, one of the most important factors to consider is the effects of any potential action on others. Children who are encouraged to think in terms of others' feelings and needs are more positive and prosocial with peers (Zahn-Waxler, Radke-Yarrow, & King, 1979), and children whose parents talk with them more often about emotions are better liked by their kindergarten peers (Laird, et al., 1994).
Endorse positive, relevant strategies. While its a good idea to problem-solve by helping children consider various options and perspectives, a parent does not need to treat all potential solutions as equally good. We have found that parents of competent children, like the mother in the preceding example, talk about various options but endorse friendly, prosocial strategies that leave the door open to play or friendship. Children react more positively to peers who try to solve problems by negotiation or compromise rather than through tattling, aggression, or verbal coercion ("I won't play with you anymore' or "I won't be your friend") (Crick & Grotepeter, 1995). Parents can help their children develop these skills through conversations such as the following, in which a mother and her four-year-old talk about how he could gain acceptance by a pair of children pretending to cook and wearing the classroom’s only two chefs hats:
Child: I'd say, "Could I cook, too, please."
Mom: That'd be nice. But what if they want to keep cooking?
Child: Uh, I would just go play by myself.
Mom: Sure, you could do that. But, there's a table and some dishes. What happens when you go to a restaurant? When you want something to eat?
Child: You say, "Bring me a hamburger!"
Mom: Yeah! Maybe you could be a customer and order dinner?
Child: Oh, yea.
Notice that this strategy is not only friendly, it is relevant (it fits) with the other children's interests (see Finnie & Russell, 1988; Russell & Finnie, 1990).
Reflect a positive, resilient attitude toward social setbacks. As previously mentioned, exclusion by peers is a fact of preschoolers' lives (Corsaro, 1981). Children have different reactions to these rejections, ranging from anger to acceptance. Some children come to believe that others are "out to get them," or that other people are just generally mean. These children are likely to react with aggression and hostility to mild slights by peers (Dodge, Pettit, McClaskey, & Brown, 1986). Other children may assume that these rejections are caused by an enduring, personal deficiency ("I'm just not much fun," "Other kids don't like me"), and are likely to withdraw from further peer interaction (Goetz & Dweck, 1980). Socially competent children, in contrast, tend to explain these rejections as temporary or in ways that recognize that a social situation can be improved by changing their own behavior (I'll have to talk louder so they hear," or "I'll try to be friendlier next time"). Sometimes these children recognize that the situation itself led to the rejection, such as the child whose request to play was refused by two of his peers. "Well, of course I couldn't play," he said, "I should have noticed they only had two trucks!"
Parents of these socially competent children endorse interpretations of social events that encourage resilient, constructive attitudes (Mize, Pettit, Lindsey, & Laird, 1993). Rather than making a statement such as, "That's a really mean kid!" they may say something like, "Gosh, maybe he's having a hard day." They make constructive attributions such as, "Sometimes kids just want to play by themselves," rather than expressing a sentiment like, 'They're not very nice if they won't let you play." These parents avoid defeatist comments such as "Maybe they don't like you," and offer instead suggestions like, "Maybe they don't want to play that, but there might be something else they think is fun." Such positive, constructive statements encourage children to take an optimistic view of others and themselves as play partners. They reflect an upbeat, resilient attitude toward social setbacks and the belief that social situations can be improved with effort and positive behavior.
Intervene when necessary, but let older preschoolers work out problems themselves when possible. The preceding suggestions may convey the impression that parents and caregivers of socially competent children must spend all of their time strategically engineering peer play opportunities and looking for chances to talk to children about relationship values. This is not the case, however. While parents of competent preschoolers do take the time to structure play opportunities and assist their children in interpreting their play experiences, they do not interfere in children's ongoing play unless it is necessary.
Indeed, research indicates that a gradual disengagement of parents from involvement in young children's play with peers is beneficial. While toddlers need an adult supervisor present most of the time, and, in fact, often play in more sophisticated ways when an adult is present to facilitate their interaction (Bhavnagri & Parke, 1991), as children get older, they benefit from trying to work things out during play on their own (Slaby et al, 1995). A parent’s presence and involvement does not benefit older preschoolers (Bhavnagri & Parke, 199 1; Parke & Bhavnagri, 1989), and may actually interfere with children's development of social skills (Ladd & Golter, 1988).
Preschool teachers often find themselves in the position of giving advice to parents about children's social skills. The research-based information presented here is intended to offer teachers solid footing for their counsel. In summary, recommendations could focus on any of three different areas. First, teachers can help parents realize that children need practice to fully develop their social skills, and that children get their practice from playing both with other children and with their parents. Teachers can suggest that parents provide opportunities for their children to develop stable relationships with other children. Most adults can be reminded that they are more relaxed and have more fun when they are with people they know well, and they can see that this is true for children as well. Teachers can also suggest that parents take the time to play as equal partners with their children. By following their children's lead, maintaining a positive, non-competitive attitude, and having fun together, parents will help children develop a positive attitude toward themselves and others as play partners.
Second, teachers can suggest to parents that they find ways to offer their children helpful information about how social relationships work. Casual discussions about the events of the day can sometimes lead to conversations in which parents guide children to consider the reasons for peers' behaviors and various options for responding. Discussions that occur when children are interested and that use a problem- solving approach are likely to be most helpful.
Finally, teachers can point out to parents how important a positive attitude is for getting along with others. Most adults can relate to the fact that it is easier to behave in a friendly way when one has a positive attitude toward others, the situation, and oneself. Children benefit when adults offer them positive ways to interpret the events that are a part of their daily lives. Children’s social competence with peers is an important aspect of their social development. Teachers and parents who are aware of the elements of social competence in preschool-aged children can encourage and nurture these skills.
Many of the suggestions and descriptions of parenting come from a series of studies we and our colleagues have conducted on how parents help children learn social skills. In these studies, we have observed parents and children playing together (Lindsey, Mize, & Pettit, (in press); Brown, Pettit, Mize & Lindsey, 1995) and we have watched as parents supervise the play of their own children and one or more peers (Brown et Al., 1995; Mize, Pettit, & Brown, 1995; Pettit & Mize, 1993). We have also conducted interviews with parents (Laird, Pettit, Mize, & Lindsey, 1994) and we have observed parents as they talk to their children about social problem dilemmas presented in videotape vignettes (Brown et al., 1995; Mize & Pettit, 1994; Pettit & Mize, 1993).
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Jacquelyn Mize, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Family and Child Development at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.
Ellen Abell, Ph.D., is an extension family and child development specialist and assistant professor in the Department of Famfly and Chfld Development at Auburn University, Auburn, Alabama.
Copyright: Southern Early Childhood Association, 1996
This article originally appeared in Dimensions of Early Childhood, Volume 24, Number 3, and is posted on NLD on the Web! with permission of the Southern Early Childhood Association.